To Teach and Delight
- J. Brooks Bouson (Author)
Margaret Atwood: The Robber Bride, The Blind Assassin, Oryx and Crake. Continuum Publishing Group (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Danette DiMarco
As part of the Continuum Studies in Contemporary North American Fiction, J. Brooks Bouson’s edited collection includes essays considering female villainy, male violence against women, female self-sacrifice, genre crossings, narrative multiplicity, and scientific and corporate violence against the natural world.
Bouson, who identifies Atwood as
part trickster, illusionist, and con artist and an
author-ethicist with a finally honed sense of moral responsibility, has selected essays of scope and depth that showcase the interesting interpretive possibilities available to readers engaging in close examinations of Atwood’s works. The essays—nested in a three-part structure with one section devoted to each novel—confirm Atwood’s ability
to teach and delight,
for to [her] a text is
alive if it can not only grow but
change through its interactions with readers.
Part one, The Robber Bride, considers Zenia’s shifting significance. Bouson explains this cohesive choice in the context of Atwood’s own vision of Zenia, a
psychic projection of the novel’s main female characters Tony, Charis, and Roz. Sharon R. Wilson identifies Zenia as
a magical realist character, another indication of how the technique, narrative mode and genre has
permeated Atwood’s works, although this fact is
largely ignored by critics. Hilde Staels describes Zenia as a
female trickster and
trickster artist. Zenia transgresses gender boundaries established by the dominant culture and serves as a manifestation of Atwood’s own parodic genre crossings to
liberate literary genres from rigidified conventions. Laurie Vickroy, meanwhile, understands Zenia as a necessary
symbolic challenge in the lives of the female trio who must confront her, and by extension their childhood traumas, to overcome
their urge for vengeance and destructive power.
Part two, The Blind Assassin, shifts critical exploration of
female badness to
female goodness. Fiona Tolan, recognizing Atwood’s
fractious relationship with feminism, especially second-wave, rights-based feminism, argues that Iris’ narrative is fraught with tensions regarding sisterly collectivity and individualism. Magali Cornier Michael examines the complexity of Iris’ narrative as evidence of Iris’ multi-dimensionality. Iris’ appropriation of combined generic forms, once unavailable to a woman of her class in Canada in the earlier decades of the twentieth century,
form a textual version of her that will
be the multi-layered self she can offer her granddaughter and the world. This discussion of narrative depth broadens to include a proliferation of novelistic phototexts in Shuli Barzilai’s essay. Barzilai reveals the greater purpose for photographic ekphrasis in discussing the detective story and elegy. Phototexts serve as clues and resolution in the former and as remembrance in the latter.
The final section, Oryx and Crake, explores
humanist and posthumanist concerns. The novel fictionalizes scientific and corporate violence done against the natural world. Reading Oryx and Crake through the lens of Atwood’s critical work Payback, Shannon Hengen calls attention to the
insurmountable debt to nature that humans have accumulated. Atwood’s new cross-disciplinary discourse includes religious study, and although at odds with her past voice, is an avenue back to
traditional wisdom and provides an
ethical vocabulary that science has erased. Karen Stein also critiques an out-of-balance scientific world, comparing Crake with Victor Frankenstein, and argues that as
trickster-scientist[s] both lack empathy because of their faith in reason and science. Finally, Mark Bosco situates the novel squarely in an eschatological tradition of
oracular literary texts in Western culture that raise questions about end times. It incites responses about the future by
impel[ling] the reader to act, to direct the future by transforming the here and now.
This volume, like the author it discusses, teaches and delights while contributing to Atwood scholarship.
- Between the Images by Peter Geller
Books reviewed: I Have Lived Here Since the World Began: An Illustrated History of Canada's Native People by Arthur J. Ray
- Family Secrets by Gisèle M. Baxter
Books reviewed: Every Time We Say Goodbye by Jamie Zeppa and Miracleville by Monique Polak
- Tragique émorationnalité by Stéphane Girard
Books reviewed: Suites sociologiques by Simon Laflamme and Jean Marc Dalpé: Ouvrir d'un dire by Stéphanie Nutting and François Paré
- Regards sur la nation by Kenneth W. Meadwell
Books reviewed: François-Xavier Garneau: Une figure nationale by Giles Gallichan, Kenneth Landry, and Denis Saint-Jacques and La Nation dans tous ses états: Le Québec en comparaison by Gérard Bouchard and Yvan Lamonde
- Kalman's History by C. D. Moorhead
Books reviewed: A Concise History of Canadian Architecture by Harold Kalman
MLA: DiMarco, Danette. To Teach and Delight. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 15 June 2012. Web. 19 May 2013.
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.